GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine

OCTOBER 2002, Volume 95, Issue 1
Written by Robert A. Harper, PhB'46, SB'47, SM'48, PhD'50
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3 rms, future vu

An alumnus offers a memorial to a vanished city of prefabs and the aspirations they housed.

We were the lucky ones. Rent was $45 a month, utilities included, for a place to live while we built our future. The married WW II veterans who came to Chicago on the G.I. Bill shortly after the war-on a monthly stipend of $90, later raised to $120-inhabited a world of housekeeping, families, shopping, getting together for picnics or bridge-and trying to balance the budget.

In spring 1946 my wife Sally, AB'44, and I, along with a brand-new baby daughter, were among the first to move in to the Project (a.k.a. "veterans' housing" or the "prefabs") just east of Burton-Judson Courts where the Law School is today. Another group of converted barracks stood across the Midway near the Lab Schools, but with almost 100 units covering a city block ours was the largest concentration of vet families.

Our prefab-which, according to the story we heard had housed wartime workers at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin-stood among row upon row of drab buff plywood units. The lines of houses facing gravel roads were broken by an east-west drive that divided the block into north and south. Just north of the cross drive were two "wash houses" with coin-operated washers and centrifugal dryers.

Mounted on concrete-block foundations skirted with trailer park-style sheeting, the prefabs looked like boxcars and contained not an ounce of insulation. In winter ice often formed in the bedroom closets. In summer the units got so hot that residents sat on their front stoops reading and talking until midnight and placed sprinklers on their roofs to cool them down.

Units came in two sizes: two bedrooms for a family, one bedroom for a couple. Both sizes had a "great room" that included a tiny kitchen equipped with plywood cabinets, counters, a sink, an old-fashioned icebox, and a two-burner hot plate with a removable Dutch oven for baking. The room was furnished with a wooden table, four chairs, and a single bed that fit under a long plywood cabinet with angled doors. Bed and cabinet combined to form a couch (and an extra bed for company). Dominating the room was a gigantic, hard-coal burning stove.

The stove took some learning to operate. During the first zero spell, I shook it down, then filled it with coal. Soon its top was cherry red. The temperature in the house went above 90 degrees-I thought the place was going to burn down. When I was away attending a conference one March, the family nearly froze because Sally couldn't get more than to-touch warmth from the black monster.

The bathroom was appointed in galvanized iron. There was a medicine cabinet, but only one 60-watt light fixture, so showering was done in semi-darkness. We bathed our young daughter in a galvanized tub placed in the shower, while she screamed and fought us in the cave-like atmosphere.

Each bedroom was just wide enough for a narrow aisle between two twin beds. At the foot of one, a square plywood cabinet extended into the room. The master bedroom came with twin beds, but the children's bedroom was furnished as the renter desired-and purchased.

Within this basic structure, each family created a home. Rooms were painted, curtains and pictures hung, rugs and linoleum laid, a pad made for the back of the "sofa," second-hand furniture added. One fellow worked a deal with an appliance distributor to sell electric refrigerators to residents to replace the iceboxes.

It may seem that we lived under spartan conditions, but we were the envy of many married students who lived in the neighborhood's one-room, shared bath-down-the-hall units-former six-room apartments converted into three or four units per floor. Moreover, we prefabbers were all in the same boat, struggling to balance school, family, and a bare-bones budget.

Wives met at the wash houses and organized baby-sitting and cooperative preschool activities. Men met on the way to and from school. Most of us didn't have cars, so shopping expeditions to the stores on 63rd Street were organized, and wives formed processions of baby carriages and wagons overflowing with kids and groceries. We socialized by going next door for bridge or discussions or relaxed on the front steps in the evening.

Despite the togetherness, we formed a varied lot: law and medical students, master's and Ph.D. candidates, undergraduates. Down our street one family spoke French to their kids in the morning, German in the afternoon, and left it to them to learn English from playmates. Next door to us a family squeezed three kids into their unit. Across the street a scientist practiced his golf swing with his briefcase and expected to be in Who's Who before he turned 40. One devout couple, children of missionaries, left their five-year-old daughter-and God-to baby-sit their toddler when they went out at night.

The G.I. Bill was a wonderful thing, but the monthly living allowance didn't really cover a family. Wives without children commonly worked full time, and husbands got fellowships, assistantships, or part-time jobs. I worked two days a week in the book department of Popular Mechanics Press, later inventoried crop insurance policies for the government, then got an assistantship. The last year I was writing my dissertation, my G.I. Bill tuition benefit expired, and I worked full time for the Home Study Department making correspondence courses out of Navy training manuals. Sally had dinner ready at 5, and I worked on the dissertation in my office in the department from 6 to 11 each night. Crossing on the Midway cat-walks with the winter wind howling, I often thought my precious dissertation draft would be blown away and my future lost.

But of course it wasn't. We lived on the brink of poverty, but we were getting a priceless education, thanks to the G.I. Bill and the University, and that was future enough.

Robert A. Harper, PhB'46, SB'47, SM'48, PhD'50, of Carbondale, Illinois, is professor emeritus of geography at Southern Illinois University and the University of Maryland, College Park.


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